Regardless of which college basketball team you cheered for back in the Rick Majerus days at the University of Utah, it’s just hard for me to fathom any basketball fan not being enamored with the coaching phenom who passed away in December 2012.
I certainly was.
At the time of his passing, several Utah sports writers offered insight and related their personal experiences with Majerus. Some still seem a little perplexed with the coach and wrote of him being difficult to work with at times. I used to hear the grumblings of one writer who covered the Utes at a paper I worked for about 10 years ago when the coach was winding down his tenure at the U.
Another writer at a Salt Lake newspaper offered similar views of the coach when asked about what he used to hear from fellow sports staffers at his paper.
I never attended many Ute basketball games when Majerus coached, but I spotted him one afternoon at CHUCK-A-RAMA on 400 South in SLC soon after he arrived to coach at the U after a few stellar years at Ball State. He was there with what seemed like all the players on the team. Although the great years at the U were still ahead for the coach, I already was a fan and wanted him to feel welcome to Utah so I went up and said hi.
“You’ve got the whole team with you today?” I said.
“Yeah, we come here everyday — it’s our training table,” Majerus said. I then let him proceed to load up his plate.
A few years later while I was doing a bit of research for a story on former Viewmont player Alex Jensen, Majerus called me on his cell phone from a bus en route to Laramie, Wyo., to play against the Cowboys.
“I might cut out when we go through some of these mountains, but I love to talk about Alex Jensen,” Majerus said. “He (Jensen) does everything for us — I only wish I could get him to shoot more. He’s unselfish to a fault.”
I called Jensen at his house in Bountiful for the article and he seemed a bit peeved at his coach at the time, and I remember him saying something about how difficult the coach was that day at practice.
Several years later, Jensen ended up as an assistant to Majerus at Saint Louis University and spoke at his funeral last month.
“There wasn’t a man as unique as Coach. You can’t compare him to anyone else,” Jensen said at the funeral in an article by the Associated Press. The former Viewmont star said no one ever made him as angry as Majerus occasionally did, but he always respected his coach’s passion and intensity.
“He pushed you to your utmost limits,” Jensen said.
Tooele and Grantsville High Schools have produced a few stellar high school basketball players over the years, but only one was fortunate enough to play for the great Rick Majerus.
The Buffaloes’ Drew Hansen played four seasons for Majerus from 1994-98 when the Utes won four WAC championships. Utah was phenomenal those years, reaching the NCAA second round Hansen’s freshman year, Sweet Sixteen his sophomore year, Elite Eight his junior year and the National Championship game his senior year.
“I was sad that we lost someone who had such a great basketball mind,” Hansen said. “For me personally there was not another program in the country that I could have played for that would have given me that type of success. The system perfectly suited my skills. Without his brilliance I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I’ve had — playing in the Final Four, then getting admitted to Stanford Law School, which has led to a wonderful career. Short of my parents, he’s had the most influence on my life.”
Hansen said Majerus knew how to implement a game plan and taught players how to play great defense.
“Defense isn’t something you see on the highlight reels, but defense and rebounding separates just good teams from those in the Top 25,” Hansen said. “Every player knew the defensive terminology and what to do in every situation — it was that precise. He did a great job scouting and he had one of the best minds in college basketball.”
One reporter told me he was covering a game at Tooele High School, and Majerus arrived and couldn’t find a parking spot because it was such a huge game. Majerus reportedly drove his truck up next to the door. The reporter told me Majerus was very angry with him for putting that incident in an article about the game.
“I don’t doubt that story,” Hansen said. “He had some sort of special permit at the Huntsman Center, and he would drive right up next to the door there. He definitely took the Bobby Knight approach of being in your face and aggressive, and he could put together a string of words that could make you cringe. You learned how to play hard and you learned how to play smart.”
“He loved Alex (Jensen). We had a lot of great players who could score like Andre Miller, Mike Doleac, Hanno Mottlo and people look at the scoring part. But he liked Alex because he did all the other things like grab a critical offensive rebound, play tough defense and had the desire to win. Alex wasn’t the most athletic guy, but he worked hard all the time and lost only a few games in three years,” Hansen said.
Hansen played like Jensen and was a lockdown defensive stopper who would usually match up against the opponents’ most prolific offensive players.
“He was a very demanding coach and we worked hard. My whole life I’ve worked hard, and it’s the only way I’ve been able to be a success,” Hansen said.
The former THS basketball star said his coach was extremely close to the players who reached the NCAA title game in 1998.
“He would fly in and visit me when I was in law school. He knew all the great places to eat. He even went to a comedy club in L.A. with my wife and I. We visited him when he came to California for a tournament when he was coaching at Saint Louis.”
Perhaps Majerus made life uncomfortable for players at times, but he squeezed everything he could out of them, and led them to a success level most of us only dream about.